The real problem,
to take a coldly commercial view, is that BMG not long ago
issued a CD, which I reviewed, in which the Boston Symphony
Orchestra under another great interpreter of French music,
Charles Munch, play exactly the same programme plus
“La mer”, with a total timing of 79:22. If you’re building
up a collection and are looking for a cheap way of getting
your basic orchestral Debussy, you could hardly do better
However, let us
suppose that some of my readers have “La mer” but not the
other pieces and would therefore happily consider the Monteux
disc if there were reasons to prefer the performances. Let
me also discuss the interpretations for the benefit of those
who are out to collect vintage readings and are not concerned
by gaps or duplications.
During his final
period with the LSO Monteux recorded for Decca, Philips and
Westminster; now that the first two come under Universal Classics
it has been possible to bring together parts of a 1961 Decca
record including the Prélude and the first two Nocturnes
– the original “other side” had Ravel’s Pavane and
Rhapsodie espagnole, now reissued by Eloquence with
Monteux’s celebrated Daphnis – and a 1963 Philips disc
which coupled the complete Images with orchestral movements
from Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien.
In 1963 Monteux
was 88 - he died the following year - and I feel that, rather
as happened with our own Sir Adrian Boult, everyone loved
him so much that they didn’t notice that he was not always
able to capture the verve and the tension which had rarely
failed him throughout the larger part of his career. The Images
are a case in point. The orchestra play beautifully but
the music often hangs fire. The comparison with Munch is startling,
but let me give a few timings. I will explain what the other
performances mentioned are doing here in due course.
|| Rondes de printemps
|Celibidache, Turin 1969
|Gui, Rome 1962
a few seconds of applause
differ slightly from those in the booklets - and reproduced
in the heading above - since according to my computer those
timings are wrong; mostly a matter of seconds but a discrepancy
of about 7 minutes in the case of Munch’s Ibéria.
Munch was a quite
different kind of Debussy conductor, of course. No one has
succeeded better than he in causing great euphoric washes
of sound to well out from the orchestra, in giving a coursing
vitality to the quicker pieces, in embracing the slower movements
with rich timbres and subtle nuances. It would be possible
to feel, though, that his concentration on – or exaltation
of – certain aspects of Debussy leave other aspects unsaid.
Nobody in my experience has shown such an understanding of
Debussy’s lights and shadows as Sergiu Celibidache. He can
galvanize the orchestra into euphoric flights no less thrilling
than Munch’s, yet he can suddenly still the turmoil and reveal
dark happenings below the surface. The problem is that, at
present, DG have issued a Stuttgart disc containing La
mer, Nocturnes (all three) and just Ibéria from
the Images while EMI have a mixed Munich recital including
a further Ibéria. The Turin performance of the complete
Images may have been issued in bootleg form in the
days of LP or very early CD but even if you could get it these
pirated issues had very lacklustre sound. I do hope somebody
will issue officially some of Celibidache’s RAI legacy which
is very extensive, covering about twenty years of his career
and perhaps marking the apogee of his interpretative powers.
As you can see, his tempi were not yet markedly slower than
those of other conductors. His Stuttgart and Munich periods
may offer better recordings but his art was by then increasingly
heading towards self-parody.
I had originally
intended to listen to the Gui again without actually mentioning
it in the review, since the prospect of its ever being made
available is fairly remote. But it does have a bearing on
the argument, for both Monteux and Gui were before all else
“faithful” interpreters rather than imaginative re-creators
like Munch and Celibidache, yet Gui’s Italianate warmth ensures
that the performances, though slowish, do not sag as Monteux’s
do. I wonder if an earlier Monteux version, or a live one,
Two years earlier
Monteux was in much finer form. As well as the expected orchestral
refinement there is the overall sweep lacking in 1963, the
clouds passing steadily overhead and the Fêtes celebrated
with tingling vitality. This time it is Monteux who is swifter:
This all goes
to show that tempo has little to do with it, for it is still
Munch who creates the more sensual, colouristic display, leading
the ear onward with his inspired control of nuance. Or rather,
perhaps it shows that, if a relatively literal style of interpretation
is adopted, then it is better for tempi not to be too slow
if the music is not to hang fire as it does in Monteux’s Images.
If forced to choose, I think I would still opt for Munch,
for there is such a charisma, such a sense of high and palmy
living exuded by his Boston recordings, or at least those
of French music, that makes them irresistible. But I am glad
to have these refreshingly direct Monteux alternatives.
Lastly, the Prélude
à l’après-midi d’un faune:
evokes the cool, classical world of the faun; Munch takes
his cue from Mallarmé’s erotic poem and evokes naked passions.
Gui, with the close collaboration of an outstanding - if too
closely-miked - flautist, seems to have all the time in the
world to unfold a reading that drips Roman decadence. After
all, Fellini had shot “La dolce vita” only two years earlier!
Incidentally, if anyone ever does issue these Gui performances,
I hope they will attempt to find out who this flautist was,
since it could very well be the much-missed Severino Gazzelloni,
who played first flute in the RAI’s Rome orchestra for many
years, even after he had embarked on a solo career as one
of the world’s top flautists.
As I said at the
beginning, this is a disc for Monteux admirers and collectors
of vintage performances. They will of course find numerous
felicities in Monteux’s handling of the Images even
if the performances do not quite hang together; I see that
many distinguished critics do not agree with me over this
anyway. For the general collector, in order to compete with
the Munch compilation, something else needed to be added.
The Saint Sébastian music would presumably have been
too long and the original Ravel couplings have been used elsewhere.
Looking at alternative Images from the Decca/Philips
stable, I see that one by Ataulfo Argenta (Decca) was well
considered in its day, but it is in mono only. I wonder if
Eloquence might not have done better to turn to the Ansermet
performances. That way we could have had all three Nocturnes.
He also recorded several other short pieces that might have
been slipped in, providing a motive to buy this disc as well
as the Munch, rather than one or the other.
The booklet notes
are good, but I have to pick up Raymond Tuttle on a point
of fact that commentators from outside the British Isles -
I presume he is Australian - often get wrong. Speaking of
Gigues he says “… and when the oboe d’amore introduces
the jig theme – a fragment from the Scots folk song ‘The Keel
Row’ – …”. Apart from the fact that “The Keel Row” is Northumbrian,
whatever Debussy might have supposed, the theme introduced
by the oboe d’amore is Debussy’s own; “The Keel Row” merely
provides the four-note motive – its lower-note flattened to
outline Debussy’s favourite whole-tone scale – which is heard
at the opening and pervades the whole piece.